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February 11, 2013There are few secrets when it comes to the Florida basketball team.
If you want to beat the Gators ? and Kentucky does, when it visits Gainesville, Fla., Tuesday night ? you'd better be good. You'd better control the pace. You'd better lock down defensively. And, perhaps most importantly, your guards had better bring it.
"Your guard play has to be extremely strong and disciplined in its approach," said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who has lost to both the Wildcats and the Gators. "Florida tests your will with their defense, and if your will is weak, then they just jump all over you. So your guard play is the most important thing when you go up against Florida."
And for No. 25 Kentucky (17-6, 8-2 Southeastern Conference), that could be problematic.
It's not that the Wildcats are short on capable guards. At different times this season, freshman Archie Goodwin, sophomore Ryan Harrow and senior Julius Mays each has had a turn at looking like Kentucky's best player.
But all three have had their struggles, including Goodwin and Harrow in recent games.
Against No. 7 Florida (19-3, 9-1), those guards can ill afford off nights.
"We all know that, and our guards know that," UK coach John Calipari said. "This is the challenge. You can't make excuses. You can't cop out. Here it is. Let's show what we are."
Kentucky's backcourt still is trying to figure out exactly what it is.
Harrow missed four games early this season with an undisclosed illness followed by a family issue. But the point guard settled in after his return and at one point strung together eight straight double-digit scoring games.
During that same span, Harrow had 35 assists and 15 turnovers.
Harrow's scored in double figures in four of his last six games since, but has 13 assists and 11 turnovers.
And Harrow's once-reliable defense has been suspect enough in recent games that Calipari has increased former walk-onJarrod Polson's minutes. Calipari said that he'd "absolutely" feel comfortable playing Polson significant minutes against the Gators.
"You stick (Polson) in the game, and he just plays his butt off," Calipari said. "Then everybody says, 'Why won't the other guys watch that and do that?' He's doing it."
In last Saturday's win against Auburn, Polson played more minutes (20) than Goodwin (17), whose recent struggles have been even more pronounced than Harrow's.
Goodwin played perhaps his best game of the season two weeks ago at Ole Miss, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds and four assists. But he has three single-digit scoring games in his past six and hasn't made half or more of his shots in a game since Jan. 19.
Over his past 11 games, Goodwin is 1-for-21 from three-point range, and his season shooting from long range has dipped to 25.6 percent. He's 1-for-18 from three-point range in SEC play.
But Goodwin's confidence is unshaken, and he'll enter Tuesday's Florida game with confidence.
"These are the type of games that I feel like I was made for and I know this team's made for," Goodwin said Monday. "I feel like we're going to go out there and get a win."
It would be Kentucky's biggest of the season, and it poses one of the Cats' most daunting challenges to date. Florida is 11-0 at home this season and has beaten its six SEC opponents at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center by an average of 28.4 points per game.
"I could care less about the way they've played," Goodwin said. "Because we're not the team that they beat by 30 and 20. We're a different team. If we let something like that intimidate us, we won't be that confident in ourselves. We don't worry about that. We just go into the game with our game plan, try to execute it the best that we can."
That game plan won't be easy to execute. Calipari conceded that the Cats face an uphill battle in Gainesville.
"Let's put it this way: They were an Elite Eight team last year that should have been in the Final Four, one game short of that," Calipari said. "And they got everybody back. And college basketball isn't what it was a year ago. So that's how good a challenge, or big a challenge, and how good a team they are."
And much of what makes Florida click comes from its backcourt.
Kentucky's three starting guards have played a combined 182, but 111 of those come from Mays, and 88 of his career games came at North Carolina State or Wright State.
"They have great guards," UK forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "They get out and run, so our guards are going to have to step up."
Kentucky's guards have to defend Florida's at the three-point line, Calipari said, and limit turnovers to keep the Gators from getting easy baskets in transition.
It's a challenge Goodwin said the Cats' backcourt is ready to accept.
"I feel like we're going to take it just like any other game," Goodwin said. "Most of the teams we play have good guard play. I just feel like if we stay aggressive and be patient with everything we're doing, there shouldn't be a reason why we don't win."